Afghan Whigs, Kim Salmon and the Surrealists: Astoria, London

IN THE week that Melody Maker celebrates the seductive nature of the dance beast, Kim Salmon And The Surrealists remind me exactly why rock is edging ever nearer to extinction. They’re three sullen, skinny figures grouped around the ex-frontman of veteran Australian psychedelic outfit The Scientists, and their wah-wah overdrive seems to date from a gentler, pre-grunge era when Thee Hypnotics were about as mucky as we got. They’re like Free without the tunes, The Fuzztones without the adrenalin, and their formless, flailing racket soon drives me to the bar.

Rock has been atrophying for years, and I think one more piece dropped off tonight.

Then, of course, inevitable as rain, Greg Dulli’s Afghan Whigs take the Astoria stage and smash any lazy preconceptions about this supposed sectarian good/bad, dance/rock divide by being absolutely, mesmerisingly f***ing brilliant. One indie figure sagely comments in this week’s Maker, amid the dance-euphoria, that rock won’t die because there will always be people who want to hear loud guitars. The heart-wrenching, scalding Afghan Whigs provide scintillating proof of this maxim.

So Greg Dulli enters his public confessional box and a sell-out audience of hardcore aficionados hits voyeuristic overdrive. Dulli’s bitter tales of regret and self-loathing vibrate with yearning and pathos, and it’s quite evident that the dapper, driven soul before us — minus goatee and dress and in a smart-casual suit, he’s the absolute spit of Dr Robert (Don’t ask — Ed) — is 4 Real. He looks, and talks, like a man who’s not too old to make mistakes and yet not too young to learn from them.

Dulli is a strange, quirky figure. His amiable, regular-guy persona, chatting away with us between songs, sits oddly with the brooding, aching depths of Afghan Whigs’ music, as if David “Kid” Jensen had suddenly taken to fronting Joy Division. But he’s easily riled, his affable composure soon shaken; “Don’t tell me to shut up and play! YOU shut the f*** up!” he snaps at an early heckler, his temper lashing off the leash.

I bet he’s hell to have a relationship with.

‘Be Sweet’ is the first cut from Gentlemen to go supernova tonight,  opening with that memorable line about Dulli’s confessed penis/cerebrum transplant and sinking ever deeper into a mire of accusation and self-loathing. Dulli loves to thrash about in that shit. He also, like Idaho and American Music Club but unlike Red House Painters, peddles a neat line in irony and self-mockery. “I’d like to read some of my poetry for, like, an hour or so, if it’s okay with you,” he announces, apropos of nothing. One can hardly imagine Mark Kozelek becoming so subversively jovial.

So it’s a great, fertile, visceral rock show, Dulli twitching and jack-knifing throughout as if teased or tormented by each slashed chord, a victim to every passing whim. The funereal version of the soul classic , ‘The Dark End Of The Street’, is unspeakably bleak, an exercise in contrariness, Dulli perversely deciding to see how emotionally low he can go and whether he can drag us down with him while he’s about it. Christ, he loves to ham it up. Christ, it’s genuine and convincing.

Afghan Whigs play eulogies for people who can see the motherlode slipping away, know that with one more heave they could pull their lives back into focus and perspective, and yet… don’t quite have the will to do it. It’s odd how we assume artists who deal in confessionals are self-sacrificingly giving part of themselves to us. Bullshit. Everybody loves talking about themselves — and artists who bare their souls on stage, let’s face it, are generally selfish bastards.

Greg Dulli is just a particularly talented selfish bastard.

© Ian GittinsMelody Maker, 22 January 1994

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